This week seems like a good one to talk about Jesus and his wacky notions. Check back at the end of the week for another post on him, too.
There is a woman who rides the buses in Kirkland; I see her frequently. She is very distinctive because she wears black trashbags, tucked with practiced care around her body, and pulls a handcart wrapped just the same. Rain or shine she is hooded and cloaked this way, and I imagine she’s relatively immune to said rain. We’ve had mild weather lately, but I wonder how well she does with cold. Tonight she was wearing old flip-flops, her feet looking callused to the point of crust, and had a makeshift bandage around her ankle. I think the bandage was the same one I saw her wearing weeks ago.
She seems to have enough money for bus fare often enough, and seems to know where she’s going. I saw her before it got cold last year and now I’ve seen her after, so evidently she’s surviving. She never asks for anything. She never says anything at all, in fact, and no one says anything to her.
I don’t claim that the Bible’s stories are literally true, as I’ve mentioned lately, but I still claim to follow the teachings of Christ. Or at least I can claim I try. So I have to ask, despite the cliche: what would Jesus do?
Well, for starters he’d probably talk to her. Let’s face it; Jesus was the kind of guy we’d hate to share a bus with these days, because he would intrude on our solitude, talk over our iPods, and make connections where we’d prefer to remain safely separate and anonymous. Jesus was definitely the kind of guy we’d be very embarrassed to know these days, too, since he’d strike up conversations with anyone at all, even ladies dressed in trashbags with horrifying feet. “Jesus, please,” we would say to him. “You’ve got to stop talking to people like that; you don’t know where they’ve been. You’re going to look crazy yourself!” And doesn’t that tell us something about our standards today?
But Jesus, I expect, wouldn’t care about our embarrassment in the slightest. He’d chat up a storm with every drunk and every wild-eyed junkie and the guys who walk with their heads down and look as if they’ve never even heard of showers. Because Jesus would see them — not the clothes or the attitude or the smell but them — and would then take the even more radical step of letting them know they’ve been seen.
So: picture Jesus on the bus, transfer tucked into the pocket of his jacket, striking up a conversation with this woman that I’ve seen. What would he do then?
Well, he’d likely feed her. According to the stories, when he shared his lunch, he’d wind up with more leftovers than he had food to start with, even after sharing with a dozen people on the road. Maybe that’s true. If you’ve got a distaste for miracles, maybe Mary just taught her boy how to make things stretch real well. Or maybe he was just so willing to share it just seemed like he always had food.
Maybe if we Americans shared all the food we have, we’d seem the same. We certainly have more than plenty, and waste much of it. We could feed 5000, dead easy, on the food that spoils each day, let alone what gets trashed, let alone all the food we use to fatten up cows and pigs for the slaughter.
Then Jesus would heal her. If she’s living under overpasses, she’s catching something, even if it’s just back problems from lying on concrete. Going by the stories, he’d either wait for her to ask for help, or give her help whether she asked for it or not, and there are lessons for us in both approaches; regardless, he’d lay on his hands and her pains would be gone. Unlike Jesus we can’t cure everything, but we can work considerable miracles with many illnesses, some of which would have been lethal less than a generation ago. Moreover it’s worth remembering that all the people Jesus cured did die of something eventually. He was in the business of second chances, not permanent (physical) fixes, and we can go far in the same direction.
As for mental illness, a particular problem among the homeless (and quite possibly Jesus’s specialty), the Jesus of the stories could do much more than we can, even today. Besides, I am highly dubious of some of the things we’ve done in this field, since I fear we are drugging ourselves and our children not to health but quiescence. We now sedate eight-year-old-boys for acting like eight-year-old-boys, and often we ourselves gulp down a pill when we ought to be yelling. In this day and age depression is not always the product of our own minds. Still, for thousands of souls quiescence is a vast improvement, one I would not deny them. So many of the people we try to ignore out on the street or on the bus are there because their own minds will not let them have any peace. We could do something about that.
Actually we could do something about that for a lot of people. It’s well worth noting that Jesus seemed to heal all comers. He healed people who were his nation’s mortal enemies, he healed people in the mob that came to arrest him, and he healed people he couldn’t even see. We could, too, if we spent half as much on healing as we spent on harm. This year the Pentagon demanded its billions with barely a word of protest raised against it, while we wrangled over a bill that still doesn’t offer universal coverage. It is not — I repeat, not — a matter of our ability to grant everyone access: it’s a matter of will. And if we healed the whole of a person and not a narrow problem, or dealt with preventative care rather than reactive, we could likely do better still. We waste care and medicine as much as we waste food.
Jesus was a wanderer himself, no fixed abode, so he could not offer our lady in question the shelter of his roof. He had to rely on others for that himself. At the same time, quite a few people were willing and even eager to give him shelter; we might do the same. He did say, after all, that anything we wanted to do for him but couldn’t, we could do for the poor instead, and he’d consider it the same thing. So we could open our doors, or build new homes. Certainly there is space enough in this country for all the homeless to get underneath a roof, if not in great comfort. And certainly there is money enough and room enough to house everyone who chooses to be housed, if we willed it.
But even if he couldn’t offer her his home, Jesus would have left her with a blessing. He left everyone with a blessing, even his own executioners. And what is a blessing, but the gift of good will? The good will of Jesus might have been particularly beneficial, but no such blessing is totally pointless. To say to someone, “I wish you well,” and truly mean it, is a mighty gift. It’s the same as saying, “I see you. I see you, and your burdens, and your beauty. I know you are a person, just like I am. We are family.” And that is always something worth saying. No blessing is ever wasted, even from spiritual slobs like me.
Jesus probably wouldn’t have given our lady of the trash bags any money. He seemed to have small use for the stuff. Perhaps that was because he was from a rural area in a mostly pre-cash economy, and just wasn’t used to it; perhaps it was because he was the Son of God and money simply had no bearing on his mission of life and death whatsoever. Money is, after all, a useful fiction we humans have invented, and it just isn’t real next to full bellies, warm hearths, and peace within and without, which is the kind of thing Jesus traded in. What does a bill or a coin mean in comparison to the presence of the ones you love?
Instead of healing and sheltering and feeding the homeless woman I’ve talked of, I probably would simply hand her a buck and walk away: buying an easier conscience, basically, paying her to stop affronting my eyes. But it’s so much less real, somehow. Maybe another reason Jesus had small use for cash is that, being a collective fiction, it never gets past its fundamental lie. It is not food to share, or health to enjoy, or shelter to sleep under. Sharing food and drink and health and shelter are so much more vital and powerful and connecting than just handing off currency. Why would Jesus bother with a financial transaction when he could make a friend? What use would he have for such a lousy substitute when he could give her the real thing? And I, being who I am, would go with the substitute and avert my eyes. Unsettling thought.
It’s more troubling still to think of all the things we could be doing. Individually there are limits to our abilities. I don’t walk around town with a banquet in my backpack and a doctor in my pocket, the way Jesus seemed to do in the stories people tell about him; but as a society we could cure and house and feed almost as well as he could. And what we might lack in quality, we might make up for in quantity (although the one is never totally a substitute for the other).
But we don’t.
We don’t, perhaps, because we can’t even bring ourselves to do the very first thing that Jesus would have done, totally regardless of any powers he may or may not have had: speak to people. Even as I watch the bag lady get on and off the bus, I never speak to her, never talk to her, never offer that small act of kindness and connection that is within the ability of everyone who ever sees her, but never really comes.
And if we fail to follow Christ in this, the first and smallest and easiest of his blessings, no wonder we fail to follow him in all else, even as our power to do so grows with every passing day. He had the will to compassion we so glaringly lack.